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Published 17 May 2012 05:11, Updated 17 May 2012 11:48
For journalist Ian Mannix, news isn’t just about information and entertainment. It’s about saving lives. He realised this in January 1997, when, as program director for Melbourne ABC radio station 774, he watched smoke rise from the Dandenong Ranges. Over three days, the deliberately lit fires razed 40 houses and killed three people.
Mannix wondered why the emergency services didn’t have a warning system in place to update residents in a fire danger zone and help them respond in time.
Providing timely information to communities during a natural disaster is a role that any broadcaster can play but it is one that the ABC, with about 25 per cent of all people 40 and older listening at any given time, is well-placed to do.
The idea is that an emergency broadcaster issues official warnings for agencies such as fire, the State Emergency Services and the Bureau of Meteorology, immediately, repeatedly and as long as necessary.
It broadcasts all “watch and act” and “emergency warnings” for fire agencies, all serious threat messages from the bureau and other warnings issued by official agencies.
“If an emergency agency issues a warning, we will broadcast it, and try to give information to help you respond to the event. To the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t been done anywhere else in the world,” Mannix says.
It works. Last year’s report by former Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty into the February 2011 Perth Hills bushfires recommended state emergency authorities strengthen their relationship with the ABC to use it as a conduit.
It requires the ABC to take a different role, however. This is not journalism. It means being one part of an emergency communications structure to broadcast warnings and co-operating one minute with the very individuals the organisation may at the next minute have to scrutinise in its watchdog role.
“We have to . . . maintain our integrity and [make sure] our audience doesn’t think we’re aligning too closely to the emergency services, even though we’re here to help them,” Mannix says.
It also requires a shift on the part of police, fire and emergency management bodies. Forging a co-operative relationship with the media – typically more interested in unearthing their failures – requires a culture change.
While the system has worked well with authorities in disasters such as Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires and Queensland’s floods, acceptance is not uniform. The lesser resources of smaller regions such as Tasmania and the Northern Territory impede adoption.
In Western Australia, local ABC stations are not allowed to join local disaster management committees, Mannix says. This is a cultural shift that will take time. “It’s a decision by emergency agencies [about] how closely they want to be aligned to their emergency broadcaster,” he says.